Startups Gain Traction in Co-op Lab

Up & Coming 2018
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This year, the 9th annual Up & Coming food co-op conference invited inquiring minds to explore proven theories and bold experimentation in the Co-op Lab. Some 278 aspiring co-op scientists went to work for two and a half days, testing hypotheses and collecting data. Along with serious research, there was a little alchemy and a lot of fun (but no radiation leaks)—we expect the Nobel Prize nominations to begin rolling in soon. 

Sixty-two food co-ops were represented at the March 15–17 conference, most of them startups in development. People came from Alaska (not one, but two startups!), from St. Petersburg, Fla., and from Vermont to San Diego. In all, 31 states were represented, plus Canada and Germany.

Up & Coming is an annual event focused on the needs of new food co-ops and is sponsored and planned by the Indiana Cooperative Development Center and Food Co-op Initiative. We held the conference in Milwaukee, where Outpost Co-op was our very gracious and generous host. Our attendees were offered tours of the Outpost Co-op stores on Thursday, along with half-day labs on the “Path to Effective Governance” or “Developing a Brand with Punch.”

The following two days were filled with seven different workshop tracks, ranging from “Business Development” to “Co-ops and People of Color.” Startups shared their trials, tribulations, and moments of delight in case studies presented by recently opened co-ops and startups with unique success stories. Many co-ops sent three or four people, just to be able to attend more “must-see” presentations—but the prize goes to North Flint Food Market, with ten board members and volunteers committed to getting everything they could out of the conference. 

Yes, there were receptions, awards, prizes, and speeches—this conference thrives on interaction and new friendships. Special appreciation goes to our reception guest, Dr. Jessica Gordon Nembhard, for sharing her insights from a life of cooperation. 

Annual award winners

The annual awards recognize the new co-ops that are making a difference, not just in their own communities, but by sharing inspiration with their peers. By recognizing these amazing contributions, we honor all of the thousands of volunteers working, often in the shadows, to bring food co-ops to life. 

Free Range Co-op from Grand Rapids, Minn., won The Best of the Best Award this year for their exceptional commitment to using best practices. From the very start, Free Range organizers sought guidance from FCI and used our recommendations and development model to become a highly effective team. Never afraid to ask questions or seek help, Free Range has taken full advantage of the assistance available to them.

Planning and accountability have been the cornerstones of their success. By creating owner recruitment strategies and timelines, using social media, and community outreach, Free Range has already recruited 450 owners since they incorporated two years ago, in a community where the population is only 11,000. 

The Start-up Innovator Award went to the Oshkosh Food Co-op, in Oshkosh, Wis., for their truly new and innovative approach to ownership growth. Last year, at Up and Coming, Oshkosh Food Co-op shared their idea for an owner recruitment event that has consistently grown their ownership base by 45 to 100 owners in one night each time they have done it. What is innovative about their approach is that it truly puts the power and responsibility to grow the co-op in the hands of the co-op’s owners and makes it FUN to take up the challenge. 

The 2018 Cooperative Citizen Award went to Assabet Village Co-op Market of Maynard, Mass. for exceptional embodiment of cooperative principle six, “cooperation among cooperatives,” within the startup food co-op community. With a history of strong and effective organizing, Assabet has generously and humbly shared their successful strategies with other startups, discussing them on peer calls, responding to every request for help, and presenting three workshops at this year's conference.

Durham Co-op Market in Durham, N.C. so clearly deserved recognition for their exceptional success in serving their community and inspiring others that we created the Co-op Hero Award to honor them. New in 2018, this award will be offered only when a deserving co-op stands out.

The Durham Co-op Market has shown that respecting and serving the diversity of its community leads to success. That respect shines through when you look at the remarkable list of policies and services they offer ( And Durham Co-op Market truly lives those policies. “Everyone is welcome” means more than just as a customer. The co-op has many programs to ensure accessible and affordable options, such as their hearty $3 dinners served up to hundreds of customers every Thursday night.

The Up & Coming conference depends on the generosity of many people who contribute time, money, and their expertise. Without all our volunteers and sponsors, Up & Coming would not be able to offer this world-class event while still keeping registration costs to a minimum. Thanks to all of you—you know who you are—and even if we can’t acknowledge you all here, we are extremely grateful for every donation and act of kindness. • 

Up & Coming Data 

Number of start-up co-ops: 62

Number of attendees: 278

Places of origin: 31 states, 

British Columbia, 

Germany (student in Illinois)

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